Pluralism and Universality

Published August 1, 1994

There are numerous other problems with Kishore Mahbubani’s account of contemporary American life. His imprisonment statistics are quite misleading; the rise in incarceration over the past fifteen years has far more to do with tougher sentencing laws than with a dramatic increase in violent crime (in fact, for years the rate of violent crime has, been dropping in sectors of the population other than the African-American). Nor does Mahbubani’s analysis take sufficient account of the special challenges that immigration and ethnic/racial diversity pose in the United States. To imagine that what is possible in relatively homogeneous East Asian societies is possible, or even desirable, in the United States is to commit a category mistake of some magnitude.

Further, and most seriously, Mahbubani betrays a singular ignorance when he says that “questions about the moral worth of democratic systems … do not surface” in the United States. They do, of course, all the time: and precisely in a vigorous public debate over what tens of millions of Americans recognize as the grave moral-cultural flaws in our democratic experiment. Too often that debate is foreshortened by an imperial judiciary, vulgarized by a sound-bite-obsessed press, manipulated by politicians, undermined by a decadent academic and public school establishment, and poorly served by the nation’s religious communities. But it is going on, all the time, nevertheless.


In fact, that argument—which many of us have come to call the American “culture war”—is the defining debate in post-Cold War America. Put most simply, it is a debate between those who believe that democracy is simply a matter of “rights” and laws, and those who believe that rights and laws have to be secured in an understanding of rights and wrongs. If Ambassador Mahbubani has not grasped this elementary dynamic of contemporary American public life, then he has not been paying very careful attention.

That being said, however, it would be a serious mistake to dismiss the Singapore School and the entire East Asian critique out of hand. The theoretical, historical, and economic cases that the Singaporeans mount are not persuasive. But at the level of social and cultural observation, the East Asians can help us to see more clearly certain problems that may have become blurred because of their unhappy familiarity.

And, seeing them more clearly, perhaps we can begin to do something about them. Does any thoughtful American doubt, for example, that our government-run educational system is a scandal? Or that our welfare system has produced generations of dependency and a cycle of poverty? Or that the country badly needs a revitalization of the work ethic and the virtues of thrift? Or that we have taken individualism and “lifestyle choice” to absurd lengths (such that a federal judge has now discovered a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide)? Does anyone doubt that the brutal facts of life in the urban underclass are a lethal threat to the American promise of liberty and justice for all? Or that forty years of emphasis on our differences have eroded our sense of national identity and unity?

But these are precisely the kinds of problems that one would expect in a country that is, has been, and seems likely to remain the testbed of modernity and its successor, whatever that is.

The blessing and the curse of the United States is that it is, in world-historical terms, the “lead society” at the end of the twentieth century. This is not a role that America sought; it is a role that history (and, some of us might say. Providence) has given us.

The United States is a testbed for many things: post-industrial economics, the digital revolution, the mechanics of democracy, the interplay of religious convictions in a post-secular world. But most urgently, in terms of the future of world politics, the United States is testing the possibilities of a genuine pluralism in the construction of modern society—a pluralism in which people engage one another’s differences within the bonds of democratic civility. It is a test with implications far beyond our shores. For the world of the twenty-first century—ever more intricately interconnected and thus ever more volatile, thanks to the communications and transportation revolutions—is going to look a lot more like the United States than like Singapore or any other of the East Asian tigers. In recent years Americans have not done very well at transforming the sheer sociological fact of plurality into the democratic accomplishment of pluralism. But the effort continues, and so does the argument about it. A decent respect for that effort would seem to be in order.

The Singapore School also forces us to think through, again, the universal moral claims on which the American democratic experiment is based. Those claims rest on the judgments that there is something properly describable as “human nature”; that human nature has a moral logic built into it; and that disciplined reflection on that logic yields an understanding of our basic responsibilities and our fundamental rights. Modern American philosophy, as well as contemporary theories of law, are uncomfortable (to put it mildly) with this universalism. And, as our current social-cultural and political circumstances suggest, too many Americans are unfamiliar with the moral foundations on which their democracy rests.

But unless there are certain fundamental truths about the human person that are not culture-specific, then all talk about “human rights” is, to borrow from Jeremy Bentham, simply “nonsense on stilts.” Moreover, if there are no truths about the human person that are universally binding on governments, none that require respect of persons simply because of their personhood, then the Singapore School is right, and the American defense of the civil rights and political liberties of East Asians is an example of cultural imperialism—as was the human-rights-driven American challenge to Communism.

This is not, I trust, something that many Americans are prepared to concede. But our refusal to make that concession requires that we go back and explore just how seriously we have taken the first principles of our own democracy, and what their rediscovery might mean for our future.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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